CES: Will 2010 Be the Year of the Slate (or Tablet)?

LAS VEGAS – Devices called slates – or tablets, if you prefer – are popular at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show, between Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer showing off a trio of them during his Wednesday night keynote address and Motorola and Dell representatives displaying prototypes that may or may not make it to market. Even though Apple has yet to say a single official word about whether or not it will put out a competing product, many tech companies seem to be concerned about trying to steal a little of Cupertino’s thunder ahead of a rumored late-January launch.

HP’s forthcoming slate, which was the centerpiece of Mr. Ballmer’s discussion of such devices, will have Wi-Fi and 3G connectivity as well as a multi-touch screen similar to what Apple has on its iPhone and iPod touch. Phil McKinney, HP’s chief technology officer of its computer division, said to Reuters: "We've been looking at this space for quite some time. The difference between a good idea and great idea is timing. We think 2010 is the right timing." Mr. McKinney also revealed that HP wants to get magazine and newspaper publishers on board with its device.

Meanwhile, Wired on Thursday had a chance to check out Dell’s device-in-the-making, which had a five-inch screen and ran the Android OS. Marketing vice-president Michael Tatelman said that specific one probably wouldn’t show up in stores, but the company is working on an array of such devices that will arrive sooner rather than later.

The Dell slate shown to Wired

“I believe they are known as slates,” Mr. Tatelman commented, leading Wired reporter Charlie Sorrel to quote Daring Fireball’s Jon Gruber, who noticed that Mr. Ballmer used the same term: “I honestly think Microsoft renamed these things on the basis on a rumored name for Apple’s tablet, just to try to fuck with them.” Shortly after Christmas, MacRumors was able to confirm that Apple is indeed the owner of an iSlate trademark and the iSlate.com domain.

Other companies, however, don’t seem to be playing the semantics game, according to Reuters, which said that Motorola executive Don Schoch demonstrated a “media tablet” running the Android OS on a 7-inch screen. And Nvidia executive Jen-Hsun Huang said that her company’s Tegra graphics chip will be at the heart of many upcoming devices, adding that 2010 is the start of a “tablet revolution.”

Viva la revolucion, said Doug Reid, an analyst at Thomas Weisel Partners, noting that table hardware could be worth US$3.5 to $5.3 billion in 2010 and leaping to $30 billion by 2014. He estimated that an average tablet/slate could sell for $700, creating a downside where netbooks and laptops see their sales cannibalized.

The key to success in such a market, of course, will be content delivery, something Apple has mastered with its iTunes and App Stores, both of which have been mimicked by other tech companies. Robbie Bach, who runs Microsoft’s entertainment and devices division, told Reuters: “Over time, the distinction between screens from the user perspective, that's going to blur a little bit. The service delivery is going to be critical."